Shoujo – Comedy, drama, fantasy, magical girl, psychological, romance
6 Volumes (complete)
Alice lives in the shadow of her older sister, Mayura. In fact, Alice keeps her feelings to herself, which is why she would never have the nerve to admit she likes Mayura’s friend Kyô. But after encountering a mysterious rabbit, Alice is about to learn how powerful words can be — for better or for worse…
Alice 19th is classic Watase, for better or for worse.
I know I’ve said this about other magical girl manga (Kiss of the Rose Princess in particular), but Alice 19th feels like it was a manga project that was supposed to get a concurrently-running anime expansion for full effect. (Think something along the lines of Cardcaptor Sakura.)
The magical abilities in this series lie in 24 words of good (the Lotus Words) fighting against 24 words of evil (the Maram Words). The Lotus Masters have to fight the darkness (Mara) that lies in people’s hearts, and each word allows the Lotus/Maram users to create water, summon courage, open doors, restrain someone, and a host of other effects. Alice and those closest to her end up fighting in this struggle of light versus darkness, and she must master all 24 words and find the 25th one. Unfortunately, not all of the Lotus Words are even introduced in the manga! Plus, most of the battles rely on only about a quarter of the Words, so that’s another disappointment. A double cour (or more) anime series probably could have introduced a new word or two every episode, and this would still might have lead to a time crunch considering there is still the final battle to be fought. A six-volume manga series just can’t cover them all, especially considering all the attention on the love triangle.
Yes, as in most of Watase’s works, two people who were very close now struggle over the fact they’re both romantically interested in the same individual. In Alice 19th‘s case, the setup is even more hollow than in some of her other stories. Alice noticed her sister’s clubmate and close friend about a month before the manga’s start, and now she’s in love with him. This is despite her never having a conversation with him before and her sister’s not-too-subtle interest in Kyô. (Even if Alice wasn’t sure, a simple, “Hey, do you like Kyô?” would have answered the question.) I’ve always thought that a more natural setup would have the three of them be childhood friends or something.
After Mayura starts going out with Kyô, Alice accidentally makes her sister disappear. While Alice wants nothing more than to rescue her sister, the other kids at school definitely take notice that Kyô and/or Alice are too close for comfort. The pair receive a lot of hostility because of this, especially when Kyô also awakens as a Lotus user. Watase has never been afraid to include some sensitive subject matter in her works, but Alice 19th definitely isn’t nearly as mature as Fushigi Yûgi or Ceres: Celestial Legend. That’s relative though; the manga still includes references to cousins dating, an attempted sexual assault, and brief nudity. For those wondering, Kyô does try to break up with Mayura so he can freely pursue Alice, and they do not officially get together or do a lot of couple-like things during her disappearance.
During the story, Alice/Kyô gain several allies to help them out, the most prominent being Nyozeka, a rabbit Alice and Kyô saved who serves as their mascot advisor, and Fray, an experienced Lotus Master. Fray is more flighty and flirty than some of Watase’s secondary male leads, but he and Kyô do forge a funny friendship. While the manga starts off with heavy emphasis on the drama of liking your sister’s boyfriend, Fray provides the manga’s comedy with his cheerful, mostly joking nature. Kyô can be pretty boring, a nice guy who we later learn keeps his guard up, but he loses his more serious side when he and Fray are together. (Fray also seems to have rubbed off on Kyô, as he manages to give into his impulses a few times.) Of course, Fray has his own demons he has to face, but I do like Fray is truly a friend and mentor to both.
Watase mentions in her side columns that many people can relate to Alice’s habit of hiding her true feelings. Alice definitely starts out as more passive than most of Watase’s heroines, so I do applaud the author for taking a chance and at least trying a different type of protagonist. Of course, by the end, she’s a much stronger person, wanting to dive head-first into the final conflict.
Speaking of the final battle, a couple other users join shortly before the ending. It’s incredibility disappointing we don’t get to see more of them. One of them, Chris, does get his backstory revealed, but the combination of time restraints and Watase’s personal apprehension means we never get the backstory of the idol Mei Lin or Billy, the African-American, engaged postal worker. I mean, come on, how many big black guys get to use magic in manga? We need more of these types of characters!
Finally, one particular (and major for a good portion of the series) element of the story has always, always bothered me. Nyozeka reveals one of the characters has been inflicted with a deadly curse, and she says even knowing about the curse would activate it. So, later, what happens? Someone talks around the curse in a completely non-vague way. I guess it was because of using a Lotus Word, but it would be like playing a game of Taboo where “anime” wasn’t a forbidden word for the password “manga”. Perhaps an anime screenwriter could have explained why the thousand-plus-year-old Nyozeka couldn’t come up with the strategy another character used about five minutes into his debut. I felt like Watase later said to herself, “Yeah, this is stupid, but I can’t retcon it, so what do I do?” and walked it back using a cheap method.
Watase debuted in the late 80s, and I usually consider Alice 19th as the last of her classic works. Her next works, Absolute Boyfriend and Fushigi Yûgi: Genbu Kaiden, just have a different feel to them in both story and art. The heroes in her older series, for instance, tend to be clones of each other, and her earlier series have a lot of heavy inking and screentones. Newer Watase manga are much brighter and have more whitespace.
Meanwhile, backgrounds are incredibly detailed. Lotus Masters enter another dimension when they enter the inner heart, and this may take them to a carbon copy of their current setting or the middle of a desert. Mara takes on the form of many disgusting-looking creatures, and it can also literally consume someone. The Maram Masters end up taking over a huge municipal building, and we see some beautiful architecture when the Alice and friends charge into the other dimension. Lotus users also gain a unique mirror-like object on their chests when entering the inner heart, but their outfits are pretty much altered school uniforms, which is a little dull. I do love how every Lotus Word has its own symbol that appears when the word is spoken. It really makes it feel like Lotus is a special language and not some corrupted forms of English or Japanese
Alice 19th is an older series, so there are some aspects that feel dated. While most modern Viz Media manga has them replacing Japanese sound effects with English, Alice 19th leaves them alone and includes a glossary at the end of each volume.
More importantly, characters tend to use personal names in the series, unlike in the original Japanese. In the original, lots of people assume Mayura and Kyô are dating because they refer to each other by their given names instead of their family names. In English, Alice also calls Kyô “Kyô”, which is something Japanese Alice would never have the nerve to do. Alice also generally calls her sister “onee-chan”, but the English goes back and forth between “Sister” and “Mayura” (generally the latter). This is fairly typical of manga adaptations from this time, but know that in the Japanese, it’s “Wakamiya-senpai” and “Seno”. The Chinese girl’s name is written as “Mei Lin”, although “Meirin” is seen the sixth volume cover, a holdover from the original Japanese.
As I said, I’ve never liked how the love triangle started and believed it was focused on too much. The story has some nice, interesting elements (wide range of magic users, own developed language) that unfortunately suffered because of it. However, the art is superb. Story-wise, I think Alice 19th is one of her weakest because it could have done so much more; visual-wise, though, I think it’s one of Watase’s strongest.
VIZ Media has released most of Watase’s major works.